Expert Perspectives: The Dual-Career Mojo that Makes Couples Thrive

To make dual careers work, a couple needs to be on the same page regarding their career and life goals and how they will support each other in achieving them. Here are four strategies from Dr. Monique Valcour for developing and maintaining an effective dual-career partnership.

A consistent theme on this blog (see here, here, and here) is the need for couples to work together to set their priorities about their family life as well as their own individual work and life goals. Then, couples need to constantly communicate and support each other. No matter what arrangement couples decide on, the key is to see that the kids’ needs are met and the couple supports each other.

My friend and colleague Dr. Monique Valcour is a leading expert in work-life issues, and she was kind enough to let me repost an amazing piece she recently wrote on her blog at Harvard Business Review (I also highly recommend her twitter feed). Her article pulls together a lot of what I’ve written about and packs it into one amazing piece.

Friend and Work-Life Expert Monique Valcour has some great advice for dual-career couples
Friend and Work-Life Expert Monique Valcour has some great advice for dual-career couples

The Dual-Career Mojo that Makes Couples Thrive

A Guest Post By Monique Valcour, PhD.

“The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.” This career advice from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg makes good sense based on research. Among couples, career outcomes are indeed linked to the dynamics of support and career priority within couples.

Yet many people end up in less egalitarian marriages than they expected to have, often facing a “choice” to either stay in jobs that threaten to overwhelm them and their families or to withdraw from the workforce entirely. Just as lack of consensus around finances can doom a marriage, lack of support from one’s spouse can effectively sink a career. To make dual careers work, a couple needs to be on the same page regarding their career and life goals and how they will support each other in achieving them. Here are four strategies for developing and maintaining an effective dual-career partnership.

Shared vision and values. First of all, talk early and often about what matters most to both of you. What gives you a sense of value, meaning, identity, joy?  Which of these things do you share?  What would you not give up under any circumstances, even if it meant sacrificing in other important areas?  Even though you may hope to “have it all,” placing things that are important to both of you (such as career advancement, living in a certain geographic area, starting a business, both being actively involved in your children’s lives, maintaining excellent health) in order of priority improves your ability to make optimal decisions (see my related post). The purpose of regularly revisiting what you hope to create together is to ensure that — to borrow from the title of a now-classic Harvard Business Review article — your commitments match your convictions. In other words, you want to avoid realizing too late (e.g., when you’ve already called a divorce lawyer) that there is a big gap between what you say you care about most and how you actually invest your time and energy.

Mutual interest, appreciation and investment. Remember that you fell in love with this person because you found him or her interesting. Being interested in and learning about your partner’s work life and sharing about your own are important ways of maintaining that mutual interest and of promoting the limitless possibilities of mutuality. In less successful couples, partners come to inhabit separate, non-overlapping worlds, with the result that they know each other less well and have fewer opportunities for mutual enrichment over time. A good guiding principle to follow is to look for solutions that reduce career-related conflicts and maximize opportunities for career enrichment between the members of the couple. In a recent HBR blog post, Stew Friedman described a relevant example of an executive who improved both his job performance and the quality of his relationship with his spouse by sharing upcoming work challenges and inviting her input. My husband and I routinely help each other decide how to approach issues we encounter in our careers by listening, asking questions, and offering a broader perspective.

I'll let Monique do the work today while I kick back.
I’ll let Monique do the work today while I kick back.

A team orientation. If you’ve been working on the first two strategies, it should be fairly natural to help each other out and to work together to find solutions that help you to achieve your shared goals (see my related post). This often means taking turns (see my related post), as my husband and I did when we put each other through school. Many dual-career couples confer with each other before accepting travel commitments to ensure that both parents are never away at the same time. The most successful dual-career couples avoid consistently sacrificing one partner’s career in favor of the other’s. This might mean saying to one’s boss, “I’d like to work from home until mid-morning the last week of next month because my spouse will be away at a conference.”  In less successful dual-career partnerships, each partner’s interest in the other’s career is often more self-referential — as in, “How will my partner’s work demands or rewards affect me?” as opposed to “How do we meet the demands and enjoy the rewards together?”

Flexibility and adaptability. Both partners need to be open to change and adaptable. Plotting an inflexible dual-career roadmap at the outset and expecting that you will be able to stick to it forever is a recipe for disappointment and missed opportunities. Modern careers don’t typically follow a predictable path; the road is ever-changing. Few people make it all the way through a career without experiencing an unexpected company event that affects their career prospects, a significant failure, an apparent success that turns out to be unsatisfactory, or a desire to make a significant change. Fortunately, having two careers takes the pressure off either person to be responsible for all of the material support of the family unit (see my related post). Furthermore, shared goals, mutual understanding, and a commitment to helping each other are powerful resources that help dual-career couples work through career and life challenges and changes.

If you fundamentally respect each other, value and appreciate each others’ careers, want to help each other succeed, and keep the lines of communication open, you’ll be able to handle and quite possibly even embrace the twists and turns you encounter along the way.

Thanks, Monique, for this incredible article.

So, how do you work to balance dual careers in your family? Any stories about works well or is hard for you? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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Monique Valcour is Professor of Management at EDHEC Business School in Nice, France, where she teaches MBA and Executive MBA courses in management and leadership. She’s a fellow Cornell alum- Masters and PhD (Let’s Go Red!) has degrees from Brown and Harvard and previously taught at Boston College. She is a widely published researcher in work-life fit, careers, and cross-national differences in support for work-family, and a founder of the Work-Family Researchers Network. We will be presenting together at two major conferences this coming summer. Follow her informative twitter feed @MoniqueValcour

6 thoughts on “Expert Perspectives: The Dual-Career Mojo that Makes Couples Thrive

  1. I completely agree with all of these ideas, especially the need for a team orientation. Monique mentions a time when she and her husband “took turns” and put each other through school. I think working couples can this same kind of approach for everyday challenges as well — for example, a husband helping out more at home when his wife is working late on an important project.

    • Hi Mark- Completely agreed. I recently wrote about my doing this for the 7 weeks of Amy’s new show, and guest blogger Erik Eddy wrote a “sharing experiences” post about this about 2 months back. If you are a team, you need to act like a team and be sure to support each other depending on needs and what’s best for everyone.

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